The British Museum’s major new exhibition of 270 items shows China under the first 50 years of the Ming dynasty as an outgoing, international, literate and creative land, producing art which still delights us today.
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Between 1400 and 1450, China emerged as the first true global superpower. Run by one family, its emperors controlled more land at the time than the Roman or Ottoman Empires or the English kingdom. It was the world’s most highly populated land with 85,000 people, mostly peasants, but also a fair number of scholars and artists.
Ming means bright, or luminous, and although this powerful, outward-looking dynasty ran for 277 years and had 16 emperors, those first 50 years were the most important. During that time, four emperors from the Zhu family ruled their immense domain in turn.
The first, Emperor Yongle, moved his seat from Nanjing in the southern rice-growing Yangtze delta, to northern Beijing, where he would begin to build the Forbidden City, which wasn’t finished until 1449.
Imposing: a portrait of the military commander Yang Hong forms part of the exhibition
A nation on the move
Once he had decided to move, Emperor Yongle began a building programme overseen by his court architect, a eunuch. Ten thousand households were simply ordered to move to the area to populate the city. Between 1404-1406 the walls went up and in 1407, tens of thousands of artisans were brought in to build the city, including 7.000 Vietnamese prisoners as forced labour.
Over the following 30 years the massive city was established with stone courtyards and marble bridges. The mainly wooden structures were decorated with hundreds of thousands of red baked bricks and yellow glazed roof tiles, made nearby.
Visiting diplomats marvelled at the city’s quality but in 1422 it mostly burned down, and was rebuilt by about 1445.
As well as the reigning emperor, princes “of the blood” ran vast estates throughout China, helping to manage their father’s extended lands. A high level of bureaucracy and literacy meant that communications to and from the imperial palace by horse-drawn carriage, though slow, were excellent, helping the emperor to maintain control.
Many exhibits in the new show in WC1 come from the tombs of three princes, which were filled with items for the afterlife - rather like the tombs of pharaohs. These include a wooden model of a prince’s horse-drawn carriage, along with a bed, and a washstand complete with towels. Also on show are many documents, including one recording the purchase of land, covered in red seals, and an example of paper money.
Tales from the afterlife: many exhibits in the new show in come from the tombs of three princes
Yongle also produced an ambitious anthology of all existing Chinese literature, using 2,169 scholars and done in a staggering 11,000 volumes. While none of that survives, works of poetry and beautiful paintings do, and are on display, some in colour, some in superb black brushwork. There is also an imposing portrait of the military commander Yang Hong, who was said — as a compliment — to have intestines of stone. Due to dress codes, Yang Hong wears red. Ruling emperors exclusively wore bright, strong yellow, setting them apart.
The period was one of technological advance in the arts, particularly in silk textiles and exquisite porcelain. Artefacts from this time are prized today for their artistry and beauty. Porcelain in particular has survived. It was mainly made at Jingdezhen, under control of the imperial ministry of works.
Twelve kilns churned out lustrous items, many with a cobalt-blue underglaze, using the best Iranian cobalt, to pre-ordained patterns and shapes. To give an idea of the scale of output, in 1433 an order was given for 443,500 porcelain items decorated with dragons and phoenixes. Potters developed new recipes to make a finer, whiter finish that would be unsurpassed for centuries.
Porcelain items from the period were often decorated with dragons
The spectacular pieces on show include elegant stemmed cups, wine flasks in porcelain or Syrian glass, a rare stem cup decorated with dragons “flying through clouds pursuing flaming pearls” with a pure gold top and a silver stand, and greenware from the other imperial factory, Longquan, decorated with peonies. A very large wine flask in blue and white has exquisite pictures of women playing chess or the zither, civilised arts highly valued at court.
There are also jewel-encrusted gold flasks and bowls, and some fine filigree jewellery. A large cloisonné vase is one of the most important pieces on show. The cloisonné technique involved filling in an outline of wire patterns with enamel of different colours before firing. This vase demonstrates unsurpassed skill and its survival is amazing.
Detail from a scroll: beautiful paintings are display, including this scroll which shows the emperor playing an arrow throwing game
Lacquerware, particularly red, was used for furniture, picnic boxes, dishes and even swings. Built up layer by layer from sap exuded from a lacquer beetle, it could take 100 layers, each dried for 24 hours and polished before applying the next. A detail in a painting of two little girls on a red-and-gold lacquer swing is unusually relaxed.
Imperial silk was made at a small workshop in Beijing which produced everyday “tabbies”, or striped silks, but the major workshops were far away in the Yangtze valley, with 300 looms and 3,000 workers. Another workshop had 40 looms reserved for making brocades worn by emperors.
When Yongle died, 30 consorts were forced to commit suicide to be buried with him. But while that practice — which was short-lived — was barbaric, the civility and elegance of the lives of the Ming dynasty rulers was extraordinary, delicate, and is vividly portrayed in this absolutely dazzling show.
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